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la danza del gabbiano

27 january 2011

In La danza del gabbiano, Salvo Montalbano continues to age gradually, and once again a breathtaking young woman gets interested in him despite his slow senescence. Since that's become standard in Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series, the more interesting aspect of La danza del gabbiano is the main plot hook: Fazio has gone missing!

For fans of Camilleri, that news is almost as distressing as it is for Montalbano himself, and detective fiction in general. For Fazio is not only a great sidekick in his own right. He is an intertextual one – an embodied literary allusion. Fazio is to Montalbano as Sjöwall & Wahlöö's Melander is to their Martin Beck. The boss in each case is an intuitive type; the lieutenant is a facts-and-figures man. Where Melander operates with a photographic memory, Fazio instead works with lists of dati anagrafici, the demographical data that allow him to make sense of the maze of Sicilian society. If Fazio's number is up, how will Montalbano ever find the right suspect again – much as Montalbano is supremely annoyed whenever Fazio starts to recite vita, morte e miracoli of everyone he questions during an investigation.

Finding Fazio is the main plot in La danza del gabbiano, but as I noted above, coming to grips with aging is the subplot (and has been for several novels). A nurse named Angela takes a brisk interest in Montalbano, even suggesting drinks on his veranda and a detour to his bedroom. But is she attracted to our wrinkling hero, or has she been suborned by mafiosi to discover what Montalbano knows about the Fazio case?

The problem is condensed for Montalbano early in the novel, when he sees a seagull "dance" before dying. (Hence the novel's title.) How does the beast know when its time has come, and how to act then? The image is made more poignant when a friend of Fazio's, an ex-ballet-dancer, is found murdered. Montalbano wants to avenge the dancer's death, if only in his private scales of justice.

He does so in a peculiarly Sicilian way. Fazio, it turns out, had been investigating a crime of huge proportions, involving the smuggling of weapons to terrorists. The mafiosi are protected by high officials in Rome. (This is all completely fictional, of course; such things could not happen in Italy.) If Montalbano exposes the smuggling, it will be hushed up – and he might well end up on the mafia's hit list.

So he pulls in some of the bad guys on a lesser charge: murder. A world where murder can be a lesser charge is already one gone wrong. But in this case it's a murder of a ballet dancer with small-c catholic sexual tastes. The murder is as nothing, in the world's eyes, to the geopolitical crimes that surround it. But just because the dancer's life is cheap, Montalbano is all the more determined to avenge him. He knows that the mafiosi will be able to cover up any merely political crime, and probably get away with murder in the process. But their weakness is murder with a kinky sexual side – well, the kinky sex alone would be enough to turn them on one another, if revealed. So Montalbano reveals it, and masters what part of the situation he can.

Camilleri, Andrea. La danza del gabbiano. Palermo: Sellerio, 2009.